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With a high office and commercial vacancy rate and over 1,000 locals experiencing homelessness, Fairfax County is considering a zoning change that could use one problem to help solve the other.

The proposal would allow unused commercial spaces, including office and hotel space, to be used as emergency shelters for those experiencing homelessness.

The new zoning would let private entities — namely nonprofits that work with those experiencing homelessness — operate emergency shelters in vacant or underutilized commercial or industrial properties.

“Special exception use would permit repurposing of a commercial building in a commercial, Industrial, or in some Planned Districts with approval by the Board,” a staff report on the change said. “Commercial building includes buildings designed or used for office, hotel, retail, institutional, or industrial purposes.”

In a presentation to the Board of Supervisors housing committee on Nov. 22, staff said there is currently no “emergency shelter” use in the county zoning code.

In addition to creating an emergency shelter use, the zoning change would add a “permanent supportive housing” use for housing that provides assistance and supportive services, like transportation and training, to residents. Supportive housing is reserved in the zoning ordinance for those making below 60% of the area median income.

The presentation didn’t include information on incentives to get private property owners to open their space up for use used as emergency shelter, but board members still expressed enthusiasm for the idea.

“We’ve had similar conversations to this before, but I think we’re in a different situation right now,” said County Board Chair Jeff McKay, “not only with what we know about homelessness but that we also, unfortunately, have a higher number of vacancies because of Covid. I think it’s time to have a conversation about adaptive reuse.”

The proposed changes are part of a general push by the county to reevaluate how it tackles homelessness, particularly by increasing the availability of permanent and supportive housing instead of relying on temporary shelters.

The last point-in-time count, conducted on Jan. 26, found 1,191 people experiencing homelessness in the county, a decrease from 2021 but higher than the numbers reported in the most recent years preceding the pandemic. About 50% of the individuals counted were Black, even though only 10% of the county’s population falls in that demographic.

During the initial months of the pandemic, the county enlisted hotels as temporary shelter for individuals who were experiencing homelessness or otherwise lacked space needed for isolating or quarantining due to Covid.

Photo via Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

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The last tent from Neighbors in Tents campaign at Alcorn’s office was removed earlier this month (via Reston Strong)

(Updated at 3:30 p.m.) A demonstration that brought tents to the North County Government Center in a push for more supportive housing in Reston has come to a close after the final tent was officially removed late last week.

Reston Strong, the nonprofit organization behind the protest to increase Fairfax County’s affordable housing stock, announced that the last tent in front of Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn’s office was removed after it was first installed on April 4.

The woman living in the tent was moved into permanent supportive housing with access to other services, Reston Strong announced on Thursday (Oct. 13).

The announcement culminates the group’s Neighbors in Tents campaign, which aims to address homelessness in the county.

The organization says that more than 20 tents across four sites still remain in Reston.

“The largest encampment is home to individuals who were also displaced in the spring when hypothermia shelters closed,” Reston Strong wrote in a statement. “Several are women, elderly, and LGBTQ+ who are still waiting on housing. The crisis is far from over but for today we celebrate, for tonight one of our beloved unhoused neighbors will sleep in her own bed, in her own room, in her own apartment.”

When asked for comment, Alcorn’s office deferred to the Fairfax County Department of Housing and Community Development.

Ben Boxer, a spokesperson for the department, lauded community partners for their efforts to eradicate homelessness in the county:

All of our Fairfax County shelters are open, and we encourage anyone who is experiencing homelessness to please contact or visit us at these locations where they may obtain food, showers, laundry, counseling, and other assistance to help them meet their basic needs. We also have experienced and knowledgeable individuals at these locations working to create housing plans to meet the individual preferences and needs of our guests. Additionally, we are actively preparing for our upcoming Hypothermia Prevention Program season, beginning December 1, which provides added capacity to ensure that no one has to sleep outside this winter.

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Sun glare with clouds (via Ritam Baishya/Unsplash)

With the D.C. area’s summer heat in full swing, local organizers worry that there are too few options for unhoused residents in the county to cool down.

Last month, the Fairfax County NAACP approved a resolution calling on Fairfax County to improve heat relief services for low-income residents and those experiencing homelessness in the county.

“Summer temperatures and storm frequencies are increasing due to climate change, thus homeless people are at greater risk of health impacts and even death,” says the resolution approved by the civil rights organization’s executive committee on July 28.

Potential solutions proposed by the resolution include a pilot program like D.C.’s heat emergency plan, better communication of hours and locations for the county’s cooling centers, vouchers to families for motel rooms, and distributions of water bottles, personal fans, and sunscreen at government centers.

In response to the resolution, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Health and Human Services Committee directed the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to provide the county’s current heat emergency plan.

In a memo dated July 29, DHHS listed a number of options available for cooling down. It also agreed to “enhance our efforts” and enact more “immediate action” for the county’s unhoused residents in need of relief from the August heat and humidity:

This work includes addressing transportation access gaps, evaluating both the variety and coordination of supply disbursements (both direct provision and at our cooling sites), considering the use of hotel vouchers in the event overflow shelters are at capacity, and providing a more robust communications plan as well as additional opportunities to provide direct communication outreach to individuals in need.

Additionally, NAACP officials tell FFXnow that a committee will meet tomorrow (Aug. 12) to discuss more solutions and ways to better help those in need.

Mary Paden, who chairs the NAACP’s Fair and Affordable Housing Committee, says she’s encouraged by the county’s willingness to listen and work with the group. But action needs to happen now, considering there are likely plenty of very hot days still left in the summer.

“Many [unhoused residents] are older and sick and are more affected by the heat than a younger, healthier person,” Paden said. “It took deaths for the hypothermia program to get set up in the winter…and you wonder if we have to wait for a death to get really serious about taking care of people in the heat.” Read More

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Reston Strong, a local volunteer-run advocacy organization, is commemorating the 100th day of its Neighbors in Tents campaign to address homelessness in Fairfax County.

On Tuesday, the organization marked the 100th day of unhoused residents staying in a temporary tent community in front of the North County Government building. The tents were set up this spring as an alternative after the county’s hypothermia and COVID-19 emergency shelters wound down.

“Tents were not what Reston Strong wanted. They were a temporary solution in the absence of a governmental one,” organizers said.

Organizers say they are still waiting for permanent solutions, including a mobile mental health crisis unit in Reston and changes to the county’s zoning ordinance that would allow temporary transitional housing as a by-right use in empty commercial buildings and spaces.

In a symbolic gesture, the group installed 100 black flags around the center and delivered funeral wreaths with 100 black roses to Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay and Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn.

Now, with temperatures rising, Reston Strong is asking the county to provide 24-hour cooling centers and access to drinking water for individuals in the temporary tents.

In a statement to FFXnow, Alcorn noted that discussion on the issue has been ongoing for several years.

“This is not a new challenge for Reston and Fairfax County and I am committed to seeking long-term solutions,” Alcorn wrote in a statement.

In April, Alcorn directed the county’s Office to Prevent and End Homelessness to review the current performance of the county and nonprofit service providers. He asked staff to update the county’s homelessness strategies in coordination with the Affordable Housing Advisory Council.

He also set a goal of adding 1,000 affordable housing units in the Hunter Mill District by the end of 2027.

“Everyone in our community, regardless of circumstances, deserved to be treated with respect and humanity,” Reston Strong organizers wrote.

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The nonprofit Reston Strong set up tents outside the Hunter Mill District office to call for action on homelessness (via Reston Strong)

Fairfax County is looking for more ways to bring more people into supportive and permanent housing beyond what some consider the band-aid approach to tackling homelessness — temporary shelters.

At a meeting yesterday (Tuesday), the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors unanimously moved a board matter directing staff to complete a comprehensive evaluation of ways to boost supportive housing, the evaluation of current options, and protocol for emergency shelter in commercial and industrial districts.

The matter was jointly collaborated on by Chairman Jeff McKay and supervisors John Foust, Walter Alcorn, Rodney Lusk, and Dalia Palchik. Foust led the motion.

Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross cautioned the board to consider that policy changes can only go so far in implementing goals.

“We really need to make sure we recognize that policies can only be so good as the people who are actually trying to implement them too,” Gross said. 

Foust acknowledged that the county’s work relies heavily on support for external partners and nonprofit organizations. He also noted that the policy directive encourages county staff to examine resources overall.

“So much of what we do in that arena is through the nonprofits and we need to look at that specifically,” Foust said.

There are currently 1,191 people experiencing homelessness in Fairfax County, per a Point in Time count calculated by the county. 282 adults are experiencing chronic homelessness, and 50% of those counted identified as Black or African American, even though that demographic makes up just 10% of the county’s general population.

The board matter specifically delves into the county’s Quarantine, Protection, Isolation/Decompression (QPID) hotels program, which was created to provide emergency shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic. The program was run in addition to the county’s hypothermia program, which operates every winter.

This year, the end of both programs raised red flags about the chronic issues of lack of emergency shelter and permanent housing. QPID ended in March.

While supportive options are available in the county, many find themselves unsheltered until a shelter bed or housing becomes available, the board matter said:

Given the shortage of shelter beds and housing, individuals may be unsheltered and unhoused between hypothermia prevention seasons. These individuals can wind up sleeping in cars, at bus shelters, in tents in the woods, and in other outdoor places. They often sleep near the County’s homeless shelters so they can access services such as meals, bathrooms and showering, laundry, and outreach/case worker assistance.

The nonprofit group Reston Strong brought awareness about lack of housing for people experiencing homelessness and the need for emergency shelters through a tents campaign called Neighbors in Tents.

The county has been working on the issue for years. In April, Alcorn directed the Office to Prevent and End Homelessness to review the county’s current operational performance in its effort to prevent and end homelessness.

The latest board matter directs staff to do the following:

Evaluate the successes and challenges experienced with QPID, including costs, operations, and results, and including how QPID compares with the success of the County’s established use of hotel rooms as temporary shelter for qualifying unhoused families.

Identify site-specific options for the development of more permanent supportive housing, with a focus on creative solutions for the long-term housing and service needs of the homeless population.

Review current zoning requirements and allowances for emergency shelter in commercial and
industrial districts where vacant and underutilized properties might be used by private entities to provide sheltering and transitional services to the homeless population and include this issue as a possible addition to the Zoning Ordinance work program for the Board’s consideration.

Provide an analysis of other available options that are not currently being used to address
homelessness in the County, including costs and benefits of each, and provide recommendations for the Board’s consideration. This analysis should include a review of successful efforts that have been implemented in other jurisdictions.

Ensure that the county’s partners in addressing homelessness have an opportunity to provide input to staff regarding matters addressed herein, including the operational review requested in the April 12 board matter.

Staff will present findings and recommendations at the board’s housing committee meeting on Nov. 22.

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Rendering shows the new four-story Patrick Henry permanent supportive housing facility in Seven Corners (via Fairfax County)

Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors agreed Tuesday (May 10) to allow time for a homeless shelter replacement proposal to come to fruition, extending a review period to Aug. 10.

The capital project will transform the 9,500-square-foot Patrick Henry Family Shelter in Seven Corners to a new 24,000-square-foot permanent supportive housing facility with 16 units and a multipurpose room.

The extension of the 2232 review, which is required for proposed public facility projects, will give the county more time to acquire land rights needed for construction, according to Department of Public Works and Environmental Services spokesperson Sharon North.

“This complex land acquisition is necessary to receive all zoning and permitting approvals for the project,” North said. “As a result, the project schedule has been extended beyond what was originally anticipated.”

The building at 3080 Patrick Henry Drive is part of the Hollybrooke II Condominium complex, which was originally built as apartments in 1952. The county bought the building in 1985 and converted its 10 units into emergency housing shelter.

The units were expanded into the current shelter in 1996 and 2006.

Per a March application on the new project:

The existing structure is in poor condition, not code compliant, has multiple accessibility barriers and does not meet the program change to permanent supportive housing units. There is a critical lack of permanent supportive housing to serve the County’s homeless population. Studies show that no other method is proven more effective than supportive housing for ending chronic homelessness.

The new facility will be four stories and have five 2-bedroom units, eight 3-bedroom units, and three 4-bedroom units to continue serving large families experiencing homelessness.

While the Board of Supervisors owns the existing building, which will be demolished, the surrounding land and parking areas are controlled by the Hollybrooke II Condominium Association.

“For that reason, the [board] must obtain land rights in order to commence construction of the project,” North said. “With final approvals and purchase, the separation and ownership will transfer to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.”

The project is currently being reviewed by the county’s land development and planning staff. North says approvals from both departments are expected to come late this year.

Voters approved $48 million in bond money for the project and three other shelters in 2016. Those include the Embry Rucker Shelter in Reston, a joint fire station and Eleanor Kennedy Shelter relocation project in Penn Daw, and the Bailey’s Crossroads facility that opened in 2019.

The county has been working to increase its permanent housing assistance, making 1,645 beds available this year — a 12% increase from last year, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ annual Point-in-Time count released May 4.

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Bailey’s Shelter and Supporting Housing (via Fairfax County)

Fairfax County saw a slight drop with its annual January count of people experiencing homelessness, reversing a yearslong trend.

Released yesterday (Tuesday), the 2022 count recorded 1,191 individuals experiencing homelessness in the county, including those using shelters. Nearly one in four were chronically homeless, and over a quarter was under the age of 18, an increase from last year.

“This is a decrease of 3 percent (31 people) from the 2021 Point-in-Time Count, in which there were 1,222 people identified as experiencing homelessness,” the county’s Office to Prevent and End Homelessness says on its website.

The homelessness reporting metric last dropped in January 2017 with a count of 964 people. Since then, the number has been increasing steadily, jumping from 1,041 in 2020 to 1,222 people last year.

Per the county, homelessness has disproportionately affected Black people:

The most significant disparity in the demographics of those experiencing homelessness on the night of the 2022 Point-in-Time Count is the disproportionate representation of people identifying as Black or African American. Although only 10% of the general population in Fairfax County identifies as Black or African American, 50 percent of the people experiencing homelessness on the night of the 2022 Point-in-Time Count identified as Black or African American. This imbalance has not improved over time.

Daytime drop-in homeless services provider The Lamb Center and affordable housing developer Wesley Housing are seeking to further help prevent homelessness by redeveloping Fairfax City’s Hy-Way Motel site (9640 Fairfax Blvd.) into a five-story building with 54 studio apartments, according to a news release.

“It’s good to see homelessness in the county trending down, but the long-term solution is supportive housing,” Lamb Center Executive Director Tara Ruszkowski said in a statement.

The project, which would have offices on the ground floor, would serve residents at or below 30% of the Area Median Income — currently $29,910 for a single person.

Photo via Fairfax County

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Dozens of people will rappel down the Hilton in Crystal City for charity (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Later this afternoon (Thursday), Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay will descend by rope down a 14-story hotel in Arlington County.

McKay is among over 70 volunteers and VIPs participating in a charity rappeling event at the Hilton (2399 Richmond Highway) in Crystal City to raise money for New Hope Housing, a Northern Virginia nonprofit that provides assistance for people experiencing homelessness.

The event will unfold over two days, with elected officials and other VIPs rappeling down starting at 4 p.m. today. Arlington County Board member Matt de Ferranti has also been confirmed as a participant.

Donors from the general public will rappel down the hotel from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. tomorrow (Friday). Food, drinks, music, and vendor booths will be available at a “Landing Zone” for those who want to watch.

In a media advisory from his office, McKay highlighted Fairfax County’s recent efforts to prioritize affordable housing, including its recently doubled goal to build 10,000 new units in 12 years and the Dominion Square West project in Tysons that announced full construction funding on Tuesday (May 3):

Access to affordable housing is a signature issue in Fairfax County and the region, and is my personal focus. We have seen, especially over the last two years, the tremendous struggle that comes from the lack of access to affordable housing. During my time as Chairman, I have worked nonstop to direct Fairfax County’s efforts to build at least 10,000 affordable units over the next 12 years, including more than 500 just announced in the heart of Tysons, and this is only the beginning. Affordable housing leads directly to jobs and leads directly to a significant enhancement to the quality of life and community for everyone.

This is why I am glad to be at this event today to help promote this vital cause and the great work New Hope Housing and all our non-profits do to alleviate this crisis — even if it means rappelling off a building! The more attention and effort we can bring to this critical issue of inequity, the more we can build the needed coalitions between the public, private, and non-profit sectors to give everyone the dignity of a safe, secure, and affordable home.

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The former Hybla Valley Nursery will be replaced by a fire station and homeless shelter project (staff photo by David Taube)

Fairfax County staff are moving ahead with a project to relocate the Penn Daw fire station and Fort Belvoir’s Eleanor Kennedy Shelter.

The combined project, which stirred some controversy at community meetings last year, looks to provide temporary and permanent housing for those in need.

The new facilities will be built on the site of the former Hybla Valley Nursery (2801 Beacon Hill Road), which the county bought for $3 million in 2020, meaning the existing fire station would move one block south.

“[W]e are currently in the process of contract negotiations with an architectural firm, so concepts have not been drafted yet,” Fairfax County public works spokesperson Sharon North said in an email Tuesday (April 5). “We are currently planning for zoning approvals in Spring 2023 and permit approvals in Spring 2024.”

Construction could start in late summer 2024 and be complete at the end of 2026, county staff said.

The project is being funded by approved bond money, including $10 million from a public safety bond in 2015. A total of $15.4 million has been set aside for the fire station, according to the county’s proposed fiscal year 2023 budget. A 2016 approved bond included $12 million for the Eleanor Kennedy shelter.

The county has said the new shelter will have 50 emergency shelter beds and 20 single-occupant permanent supportive housing units. The new fire station will accommodate 23 staff.

The planned facilities reflect the county’s push for more robust development along the Richmond Highway corridor, including in the Penn Daw Community Business Center. In February, the county board approved a private housing development by Shields Avenue to the north, and the branding for a planned bus rapid transit service was unveiled.

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Encampment set up by people experiencing homelessness (via MWCOG)

Work is underway to understand the state of homelessness in Fairfax County.

The county conducted its annual Point-in-Time Count this past January, where public and nonprofit workers travel to shelters, transitional housing, and other sites to document the number of people experiencing homelessness on one night.

“We’re analyzing the results, and we’ll be publishing the results along with the other D.C. region communities in May,” Tom Barnett, the deputy director of the county’s Office to Prevent and End Homelessness, told FFXnow.

Barnett says there won’t be a way to determine whether homelessness increased or decreased for the area until the report is finalized. The Metropolitan Washington Coalition of Governments will release the report.

Last year, Fairfax County was one of only two localities in the D.C. area to report an increase in people experiencing homelessness. Its numbers increased from 2017 to 2021 by 27%, or 1,222 individuals.

According to a presentation to the county’s Advisory Social Services Board on March 16, the age group most affected by homelessness last year was children and teenagers:

  • 24% of people experiencing homelessness were under the age of 18
  • 7% were 18 to 24-year-olds
  • 16% were 25 to 34-year-olds
  • 15% were 35 to 44-year-olds
  • 15% were 45 to 54-year-olds
  • 12% were 55 to 61-year-olds
  • 11% were 62 and older

County staff also reported that 51% of those affected locally were Black, and 37% were white. Most were male, and 327 people were chronically homeless.

Fairfax County has been using federal stimulus funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020 and American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to support its efforts to address homelessness during the pandemic.

One example from those funds includes money to provide 169 emergency housing vouchers to people so they can rent apartments in Fairfax County.

“That’s going to be make a huge positive impact in our homelessness numbers,” Barnett said.

In March, the county also announced it was receiving $10 million in federal Continuum of Care funding to provide homeless housing and services. Most of the money will be used to expand programming at the nonprofit Shelter House.

“Our community received a significant increase this year,” Barnett said, noting that it represents a 9% uptick from last year’s funding. “That money is going to help survivors of domestic violence who are experiencing homelessness find new housing.”

The county also created a Continuum of Care Committee last year to assess its strategies around addressing homelessness.

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